On Tuesday, Yehuda Shaul, co-founder and head of the organization Breaking the Silence (BtS), spoke on campus. BtS claims it “exposes” the actions of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) in the occupied territories by accumulating the testimonies of soldiers about various prevention tactics exercised by the IDF. BtS casts itself as a nonpartisan and apolitical group that aims only to make public the confessions of IDF soldiers. This characterization, however, is highly misleading. As the Israeli paper Haaretz noted, BtS “has a clear political agenda, and can no longer be classed as a human rights organization.”
The great irony of BtS is that it claims to show Israelis events of which they are unaware via the testimony of soldiers. Israel, as is well known, exercises universal conscription, meaning that since 1967, millions of people have served in the Israeli army. It would be extraordinarily difficult to find someone in Israel today who does not know or did not serve themselves. Yet only 950 soldiers, an extraordinarily small number, have testified to BtS, most of them anonymously. The anonymous character of these statements has been heavily criticized by the IDF, and the IDF has noted that it cannot investigate anonymous allegations.
The IDF has always and continues to prosecute soldiers who engage in violations of policy or law. Much as in America, however, anonymous accusations cannot be the basis for legal action by the military. If the soldiers of BtS were truly serious about combating alleged abuses in the Israeli army, they would come forward.
The true stories of Israeli soldiers are found not in the anonymous confessions of BtS but rather in stories like that of Berkeley junior Nir Shtern. Shtern served for three years in the Israeli army, from 2005 to 2008, during a time of great turmoil. As an IDF soldier and later as a commander, Shtern says that throughout his service, the IDF was “always considering dignity, respect and safety of Palestinian civilians.” Even if some of the claims of BtS have grains of truth behind them, they are clearly anomalous. With the exception of a paltry 950 people, most Israeli soldiers are like Shtern: They served with honor and strived to treat all people with utmost respect.
The IDF has strict ethical standards and strives to at all times ensure soldiers meet them. Given the intense scrutiny Israel faces both internationally and domestically, the IDF, to the best of its ability, strives not only to protect Israeli civilians but also to treat all human beings with dignity. Immediately after the typhoon in the Philippines, an IDF humanitarian mission was first on the ground to treat Filipino civilians. IDF training focuses not only on the physical and strategic aspects of being a soldier but also educates soldiers on the ethical code of the IDF. In fact, so great is the IDF’s commitment to being an ethical army that it requires all soldiers carry with them a copy of the military’s code of ethics. Furthermore, the IDF has a strict requirement that all all suspected ethical violations must immediately be reported to a superior officer. In other words, the entire architecture and mission of the IDF is designed to conform to the strictest ethical standards.
Herein lies the truth behind BtS: It is not the noble pressure group it claims to be. Shaul himself acknowledged that the IDF is not the problem and claimed that his goal was not to reform the IDF. BtS does not advocate draft refusal and has spoken, at the request of the IDF, at various official IDF events in the past. Yet Shaul also stated that the organization does not advocate for a political solution to the ongoing conflict.
Why then, does BtS exist at all? The answer may lie in the organization’s budget. BtS receives its funding largely from foreign governments (such as those of Spain and the Netherlands), church organizations in Europe and a pro-Palestinian nongovernmental organization called NDC. All of these groups seek to delegitimize Israel politically, especially NDC, which has supported the dangerously prejudicial Boycott, Divest and Sanctions movement. Although Shaul claims to oppose anti-Israel groups, he seems content to take their money and allow them to use his organization as a platform to promote their views.
The undisputed truth is that the IDF’s tactics of prevention in the Palestinian territories have saved innocent lives. Israeli soldiers, such as Shtern, come into the army at the age of 18, the same age many UC Berkeley students first come here. While UC Berkeley students are studying and socializing, young Israelis are working to defend their nation and protect people from terrorists and murderers. It is a serious discredit to these brave young men and women that BtS publishes their anonymous and one-sided accounts and uses them to characterize the entire IDF. Although there are serious issues in the ongoing Middle Eastern conflict that deserve careful debate, the borderline-libelous words of BtS will serve only to harm the level of discourse.
Elijah Z. Granet is a freshman at UC Berkeley.